A 60-hour sufferfest: Steamboat locals take on Kauai in harrowing adventure
August 7, 2018
While traversing the island of Kauai might sound like a cakewalk, picking fresh mangos and plunging into waterfall pools, Allen Belshaw and Eric Meyer beg to differ.
"I hatched the idea after a failed attempt to descend from the top of Waimea Canyon down the south face of Kawaikini, Kauai's high point," said Belshaw, a Steamboat Springs-area doctor. "It was during our family spring break trip, where I spent two days struggling through dense jungle before my family called search and rescue when I was only 300 yards from civilization."
The humiliation led to planning a return trip, this time adding on a climb from the north coast to the start of his previous misadventure. This time, he brought better gear and fellow veteran adventurer Eric Meyer.
"The plan was to start with the 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the Napali Coast, climb 3,000 feet up the Kalalau Valley and spend the night at Kokee Cabins. From there, we'd head through the high-altitude Alakai Swamp to the summit of Kawaikini and then down a complex network of steep ridges and deep canyons to the island's arid southern side. Sixty-five miles spread over three days — how hard could that be?"
Turns out, plenty. Things started smoothly enough. After a day or two of prep, the duo jogged the Napali Trail in a few hours before turning south up the Kalalau Valley — stopping to cool off in the stream and eat guava hanging from the trees. Then, turning up a ridge they judged from Google Earth as the best way to continue up, tropical paradise gave way to a vertical slugfest. Just as they reached some unprotectable fifth-class rock, the rain started.
"We tried our best to spot each other as we slimed our way up the exposed buttress," Belshaw said. "At the top, the ridge turned to impenetrable uluhe ferns."
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After a few hours of negligible forward progress and flashbacks from his previous trip, Belshaw was ready to call it quits. But Meyer calmly responded, "Oh, we're not turning around."
So, they got back to it, taking turns leading and thrashing through, over and under the ferns for the next eight hours before finally arriving at the canyon rim. A few miles on the Pihea Trail saw them reach the cabin, where they ate and built a fire to dry their gear. Total time so far: 17 hours. The next day, they rested and hitchhiked into the town of Waimea for dinner. Then they headed back up. At midnight, they began trudging across the Alakai Swamp, where a massive wild pig rushed by them in the dark.
"If it didn't swerve at the last second, it easily could have broken our legs," Belshaw said.
From there, a fainter trail brought them another 12 miles closer to the summit of Kawaikini and the Waialeale Crater, the "wettest place on Earth." Optimistic but soaked, they descended the knife-blade ridge to the south and promptly became lost in the swirling mist.
Despite having a GPS tracker, they kept arriving at impassable drops, having to backtrack. Nightfall found them navigating through treacherous rocky terrain interspersed with more dreaded uluhe ferns.
"With the dense underbrush, we couldn't tell where the ground ended and the cliffs started until the last step," he said.
By 2 a.m., 26 hours after leaving the cabin, they were back on track but stressed and disoriented. Worsening matters, the incessant rain had turned the stream they were following into a raging torrent.
"We had to swim about 2 miles of Class III to IV whitewater," said Meyer. "Ferry-swimming back and forth between boulders to avoid the largest drops was our sole strategy."
Eventually, after countless backtracks, the drenched duo reached a dirt road and shuffled another 11 miles to the Kaumualii Highway.
"Our plan had been to walk the last 9 miles to Poipu, but we'd had enough after 43 hours," he said. Twenty minutes later, Uber delivered them back to their hotel. Total slog: 54 miles in 60 grueling hours.
"It was as hard mentally as it was physically," said Meyer, a veteran of several Himalayan and canyoneering expeditions, including an ascent this spring of Papua New Guinea's Carstensz Pyramid. "Reaching the summit was just the beginning. Human beings just don't belong there. It reminded me of a feeling I had my first time on Everest after seeing a few dead bodies — we really didn't belong there, so we'd better keep moving."
"It was hard figuring out which drainage to descend because of the dense canopy," Meyer added. "Complex navigational decisions became confusing and frustrating. At times, the down-climbing turned into uncontrolled sliding, grabbing vines to slow us down."
Meyer also said that, from the fatigue and insomnia, they also both experienced hallucinations of would-be rescuers reaching them or seeing the road only to have it vaporize in the rain.
Chalk it up to a hard lesson learned, said Belshaw.
"I failed the first time, thinking I had just made a bunch of bad route-finding decisions," he said. "But that wasn't the case at all because the second attempt was just as hard. It was a pure sufferfest."
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